The picture was quite popular nonetheless, even receiving mostly good reviews. But today North to Alaska doesn't play well. It's like a high-concept movie before the term was invented. Each of the film stars was carefully calculated to appeal to a different demographic (Ernie Kovacs for more intellectual, urban audiences, Fabian for the teenagers, etc.), and the film all too obviously tries to compensate for its shortcomings with unfunny, broad slapstick.
But maybe the biggest problem with North to Alaska is that it fails to live up to ads promising "Big Sam (Wayne) and the Big Adventure!" Instead of Western action set against the Klondike Gold Rush and picturesque Alaskan scenery, there's not a lot of action, nary a gold mine in sight, no dogsleds, no snow, and not one frame of the film was actually photographed in Alaska.
Fox's Blu-ray is okay, not exceptional. Filmed in CinemaScope, North to Alaska is a wee bit brownish and doesn't look as pristine as the best Blus of ‘scope titles from this period, nor does the DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 stereo, adapted from the original 4-track magnetic tracks, "pop" like it should.
The story is set in Nome in 1900, where partners Sam McCord (Wayne) and George Pratt (Stewart Granger) have struck it rich. George sends Sam down to Seattle to order mining equipment and to fetch George's fiancée, a French girl Sam's never met, and to whom George has been faithful for the past three years. In Seattle however, Sam learns that George's fiancée has long ago given up on her miner lover and married somebody else.
Not wanting to disappoint his hard-working partner, Sam conspires with French prostitute "Angel" (Capucine) to take her place. But Angel misunderstands Sam's offer, believing Sam wants her for himself, especially after he treats the lowly prostitute with the respect she hasn't felt in years.
Back in Nome, George rejects Angel though Billy (Fabian), the Englishman's unlikely and anachronistically Elvis-like kid brother (!), develops a crush on this hooker with a heart of gold. Meanwhile, con artist Frankie Cannon (Ernie Kovacs) slowly has been wresting control of the town's riches, eventually setting his greedy sights on Sam and George's gold mine.
Many of John Wayne's movies fall into a sub-category of a boisterous, usually Western romantic comedies (McLintock!, 1963, being the most famous example), movies rife with saloon brawls and broad slapstick, often with lunkhead Wayne developing a love-hate relationship with his leading lady, he the hard-drinking, hard-fighting man too stupid and/or insensitive to address the feminine needs of his co-star. Sometimes, as in Westerns generally, including John Ford's Stagecoach (1939), she's a prostitute, in other films she's Wayne's ex-lover/wife or a greenhorn stubbornly insisting on glomming herself to Wayne's character, subjecting herself to danger to protect her financial interests.
In the case of North to Alaska, Angel has respectability envy. In a key scene, Sam is invited to a big picnic at his old lumberjacking camp, where the women there, notably Lena Nordquist (Kathleen Freeman), the wife of Sam's old boss (Karl Swenson), initially want nothing to do with the notorious Angel. Sam, however, gallantly protects the lady's honor, and by the end of the evening Angel and Lena become fast friends.
Another problem with the overlong (122 minutes) film is that it's clear 20 minutes in (or even looking at the poster, as Sergei Hasenecz suggests) that Sam and Angel are destined for one another, and in the second-half especially North to Alaska tests the viewer's patience with the needlessly long and episodic journey it takes to get there.
All exteriors were shot in and around Point Mugu and Mammoth Mountain, California. There aren't even any establishing stock shots featuring the real Alaskan wilderness and, while attractive, the California settings don't resemble the future state much.
Capucine is undeniably beautiful but spoke little English at the time and in the movie comes off as too delicate a flower to be believed as a worldly prostitute willing to role the dice, pick up stakes and move to Alaska for an arranged marriage.
The movie also so concentrates its energies on Angel and her relationship with Sam, George, and Billy that it's largely bereft of action, except for the occasional action set piece, which function more as comedy relief. One senses the film's desperation when the first barroom brawl occurs less than five minutes into the film, and the climatic one incorporates Three Stooges-type sound effects, cutaways to an applauding seal, and a goat that does double-takes worthy of James Finlayson.
Further pandering to movie audiences, the film finds time to let Fabian sing, a song called "If You Knew," but it was greatly overshadowed by Johnny Horton's far more catchy title song ("North to Alaska, you go north, the rush is on!"). Ironically, the 35-year-old Horton died in a car accident just eight days prior to the movie's premiere. (Co-star Ernie Kovacs coincidentally died in another car crash barely a year later, at age 42.)
Against all odds North to Alaska was a big hit, earning $5 million in domestic rentals alone, and the film has its advocates even now.
Video & Audio
Fox's Blu-ray of North to Alaska looks okay, but is neither as sharp nor as colorful as one might have hoped, though at least it lacks the overdone DNR seen on some earlier Fox catalog titles. The 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, adapted from the original 4-track magnetic stereo tracks, also lacks the wonderful range and directionality one usually expects from a big CinemaScope film of this era, though like the video transfer it's a little bit better than adequate. A 4.0 French track (with Capucine possibly dubbing her own performance?) is included, along with English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. My Japanese PS3 defaulted to hidden Japanese menus and language options.
Supplements are limited to a trailer in poor shape, and Fox Movietone News excerpts of the film's premiere.
Lesser Wayne targeting undemanding audiences, North to Alaska is a very slight though broadly-played Western comedy and only marginally Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.